What Is Sexual Abuse?

May 5, 2020 | Attorney, Matthew Dolman
What Is Sexual Abuse?

Defining Florida Sexual Abuse

The American Psychological Association (APA) defines sexual abuse as “unwanted sexual activity, with perpetrators using force, making threats, or taking advantage of victims not able to give consent.” Situations that define sexual abuse in Florida will be further discussed below; however, children and mentally vulnerable adults are the groups most often vulnerable to sexual abuse. Not only can victims of sexual abuse suffer physical injury, but they must also cope with the emotional trauma of abuse, which can stay with a victim for their entire life. The emotional trauma can also have tangible consequences that impact a survivor's ability to function in a wide variety of social and professional situations. If you or someone you know has been sexually abused, Florida law entitles you to seek compensation for the economic and non-economic losses related to the abuse in civil court. This is different than the criminal charges the perpetrator will face; criminal penalties are only one aspect of accountability but involve an entirely different judicial process. An experienced and empathetic sexual abuse attorney can help you take legal action in civil court against those who caused you or your loved one harm. Sexual abuse is a sensitive subject that inspires guilt and shame in victims; you might be struggling with your decision to take action. Holding perpetrators accountable for sexual abuse can contribute to your healing process. Additionally, when you take action, you help protect other potential future victims. Whether you are helping a family member or child who fell victim to sexual abuse, or you are a sexual abuse survivor, you need to understand more about the crime, perpetrators, victims, and the dynamics of the abuse. We have provided this guide to give you a deeper understanding of sexual abuse, inspire you to take legal action, and let you know that you do not have to go through this alone. We also provide information for reporting if you suspect your child or another vulnerable person in your life has been sexually abused.

Florida Laws About Sexual Abuse

Sexual abuse is a broad umbrella term that includes a wide variety of sex crimes. Each state's laws use slightly different verbiage to talk about sexual abuse. Florida law divides most sex crimes into the following broad categories: sexual battery, molestation, and exhibition. Each of these acts falls under the description of sexual abuse when they are committed against a person incapable of giving consent.

Sexual Battery

Under Florida law, the presence of penetration is the primary difference between sexual battery and other types of sexual abuse. Sexual battery specifically refers to oral, anal, or vaginal penetration with another person's sexual organ or anal or vaginal penetration with an object. At least one of the following circumstances must exist to constitute sexual battery:
  • The victim lacks the physical capability to resist.
  • The offender threatens force or violence against the victim and the victim believes the threat is credible.
  • The offender threatens retaliation against the victim or harm to others and the victim believes the threat is credible.
  • The offender drugs a victim or knows that someone else gave the victim a narcotic, anesthetic, or other substance that mentally or physically impairs the victim.
  • The offender knows that the victim has a mental health issue, which makes it unlikely the victim can understand the nature of the conduct.
  • The victim is physically incapacitated because they are asleep or unconscious.
  • The offender holds a position of power over the victim, such as police officers, correctional officers, and the like.
  • The victim is a minor. Florida's legal age of consent is 18.


Lewd or lascivious molestation, sometimes referred to as sexual touching, refers to any intentional sexual touching of a person's breasts, genitals, or buttocks who is under age 16. Molestation can also occur when offenders touch the genital area or the clothing that covers any of the previously listed areas. Sexual abuse that involves sexual touching also includes situations where the perpetrator forces or manipulates a person under age 16 to touch his or her sex organs, buttocks, breast, or genital area.


Sometimes referred to as indecent exposure, lewd exhibition includes intentional masturbation or exposure of the genitals to another. Under Florida law, exhibition can also include sadomasochistic abuse, sexual bestiality, or the simulation of sexual acts.

Who Commits Sexual Abuse?

The perpetrators of sexual abuse vary greatly, especially when you consider whether the victim is a child or an adult. Although the number varies, research shows that about 90 percent of child abuse perpetrators know the child or the child's family. Among sexual battery cases in adults, approximately 80 percent of offenders know the victim. Some examples of common relationships abusers have with their child victims include:
  • Family members
  • Teachers
  • Coaches
  • Care providers
  • Parents of a friend
  • Clergy members
  • Neighbors
  • Family friends
Those who sexually abuse adults might be:
  • Neighbors
  • Friends
  • Family members
  • Caregivers for the elderly
  • Spouse or partner
  • Law enforcement/corrections officer
In either situation, strangers can be perpetrators, but it's more likely the abuser uses their position of power or trusted status to intimidate, manipulate, threaten, or coerce the victim into the abuse. It's also true that abusers who target children are less likely to use violent force than those who target adults. Learn more: Sexual Assault in an Uber

Risk Factors for Victimization in Childhood and Adulthood

Sexual abuse is never the victim's fault. Yet, some factors at the individual, family, community, and societal levels can increase the likelihood that a child or adult experiences sexual abuse.

Factors Associated with Increased Risk of Childhood Sexual Abuse

  • Individual factors. Many individual risk factors can lead to the sexual abuse of children. Yet some are more common than others. Most child sexual abuse victims are female. The age of victims ranges based on whether the abuser is a family member; sexual abuse by a family member often occurs in children, while abuse committed outside of the family occurs more often among teenagers. Those who have experienced sexual abuse at least one time and those who have special needs are more vulnerable to suffer sexual abuse.
  • Family factors. Common familial risk factors related to child sexual abuse include lack of parental supervision, parental drug and alcohol use, parental mental health challenges, and families with stepfathers.
  • Community factors. These factors have not been studied to the same extent as individual and familial factors, but some researchers claim that communities that tolerate sexual abuse and do not properly sanction abusers increase the risk of childhood sexual abuse.
  • Societal factors. Many societal factors put children at risk for sexual abuse such as hypersexualization, a history of denial about sexual abuse, traditional norms about gender roles, and norms and ideologies that support male sexual entitlement and sexual abuse.

Factors Associated with Increased Risk of Adult Sexual Abuse

  • Individual factors. Young adult women face the most risk of adult sexual abuse or assault. Those who were abused, physically and/or sexually, as children are at increased risk. Finally, drug and alcohol use and working in the sex trade greatly increase the risk of adult sexual abuse.
  • Relationship factors. Adult relationship factors do not play a significant role in increasing the risk of abuse for adults, but some studies point to the existence of multiple sexual partners as a contributing factor.
  • Community factors. Adults have the same community risk factors for abuse or sexual assault as children: tolerance of the behavior and the failure to hold perpetrators accountable for their actions.
  • Societal factors. The #MeToo movement has brought to light many societal factors that increase the chances of an adult experiencing sexual assault or abuse. They include many of the same risk factors associated with child sexual abuse, such as enforcing traditional gender norms and victim-blaming behavior.

Warning Signs of Sexual Abuse in Children, Teens, and Adults

If you are a concerned adult and suspect that someone you love has experienced sexual abuse or is currently being abused, you can look for warning signs. The Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN) is one of the nation's largest resources for victims and survivors of sexual abuse. Below we offer an overview of warning signs for children, teens, and young adults.

Warning Signs of Sexual Abuse in Children

  • Sexually Transmitted Infections (STIs)
  • Bleeding or bruising in the genital area
  • Blood on bedsheets
  • Inappropriate sexual behavior
  • Renewed behaviors, such as bedwetting and thumbsucking
  • Separation anxiety, especially when being left alone with certain people and during the night
  • Avoids bathtime and avoids removing clothes

Warning Signs of Sexual Abuse in Teens

  • Sexually Transmitted Infections (STIs)
  • Anorexic or bulimic eating patterns, such as starving or bingeing
  • Bruises, wounds, and other signs of physical abuse
  • Evidence of depression including sadness, lethargy, trouble sleeping, and withdrawal
  • Anxiety
  • Poor schoolwork
  • Changes in personal grooming
  • Poor hygiene
  • Self-harm, such as cutting, and talking about suicide
  • Alcohol and/or drug use

Warning Signs of Sexual Abuse in Young Adults

  • Sexually Transmitted Infections (STIs)
  • Low self-esteem
  • Evidence of depression such as sadness, lethargy, changes in appetite, abnormal sleep patterns, and withdrawal from normal activities
  • Self-harm, attempted self-harm and expressing suicidal thoughts
  • Increased worry or anxiety
  • Avoiding specific people and places
  • Increased use of alcohol and/or drugs

Resources for Reporting Sexual Abuse in Florida

If you are experiencing ongoing sexual abuse or have experienced sexual abuse in the past, talk about your trauma with someone who has the training to help you. You are not alone. If you are uncomfortable seeking out local resources, contact the National Sexual Assault Hotline 24 hours a day at 800.656.HOPE (4673) or chat online at online.rainn.org. If you or someone you know is in immediate danger related to sexual abuse, call 911 immediately. If you need to report adult or child sexual abuse, you can file a report with the Florida Department of Children and Families (DCF). You can call their central abuse hotline at 1-800-962-2873. You can also file a report online. Filling a report with DCF will trigger an investigation to help the vulnerable child or adult listed in the report. Florida has mandatory reporting requirements for those who suspect child sexual abuse or the abuse of a vulnerable adult. Under Florida law, anyone who knows or suspects a child is sexually abused by a parent, guardian, caregiver, or other must report the abuse to DCF. Every Florida resident has a moral responsibility to report the sexual abuse of a vulnerable adult, but the law specifically outlines that mandatory reporters include:
  • Medical professionals, including mental health professionals and those who practice alternative medicine
  • Staff in nursing homes, assisted living facilities, and adult daycare centers
  • Social workers
  • Criminal justice employees and police officers at all levels
  • Florida council members for advocacy and long-term care ombudsman
  • Officers, trustees, and employees who work at banks or credit unions
Attorney Mathew Dolman
Matthew Dolman, Sexual Abuse Attorney
The same mandatory reporters apply for children, but the law includes a few more roles:
  • Teachers and other school staff
  • Principals and other school officials
  • Judges
  • Institutional workers
  • Daycare providers

Taking Legal Action Against a Sexual Abuser

Sexual abuse impacts survivors and their families long after the abuse comes to an end. Child victims can experience long-term emotional and behavioral issues, often for decades. Criminal justice only serves as a part of the puzzle for holding abusers accountable. You also deserve compensation for losses related to the abuse and trauma. The money will not turn back the clock, but it can provide funding for treatment and recovery. Sexual abuse survivors often require costly behavioral therapy with a mental health professional to work through the trauma they experienced. If you take action against your abuser or someone who abused your child or a vulnerable adult in your life, you can confront the abuser as well as prevent others from falling victim in the future. An empathetic and compassionate sexual abuse attorney can help you through the difficult process of seeking justice in civil court. To schedule a free consultation with Dolman Law Group Accident Injury Lawyers, PA either call our Clearwater office at (727) 451-6900 or fill out a contact form online.
Dolman Law Group Accident Injury Lawyers, PA 800 N Belcher Rd Clearwater, FL 33765 (727) 451-6900


Matthew Dolman

Personal Injury Lawyer

This article was written and reviewed by Matthew Dolman. Matt has been a practicing civil trial, personal injury, products liability, and mass tort lawyer since 2004. He has successfully fought for more than 11,000 injured clients and acted as lead counsel in more than 1,000 lawsuits. Always on the cutting edge of personal injury law, Matt is actively engaged in complex legal matters, including Suboxone, AFFF, and Ozempic lawsuits.  Matt is a lifetime member of the Million Dollar Advocates Forum and Multi-Million Dollar Advocates Forum for resolving individual cases in excess of $1 million and $2 million, respectively. He has also been selected by his colleagues as a Florida Superlawyer and as a member of Florida’s Legal Elite on multiple occasions. Further, Matt has been quoted in the media numerous times and is a sought-after speaker on a variety of legal issues and topics.

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