Peer-to-Peer Sexual Abuse: How to Identify It and What to Do About It

Peer-to-peer sexual abuse occurs between minors in an asymmetrical relationship. Adult intervention is key. Keep reading to learn more.
Peer-to-Peer Sexual Abuse: How to Identify It and What to Do About It
Elena Sanz Martín

Written and verified by the psychologist Elena Sanz Martín.

Last update: 11 May, 2023

When we talk about sexual abuse in childhood, we usually think of an adult who assaults or coerces a minor. However, this isn’t always the case. Peer-on-peer sexual abuse occurs and sometimes goes unnoticed or isn’t handled properly due to a lack of knowledge about the situation. Nevertheless, the consequences can be severe.

The school, the group of friends, or the family nucleus are seemingly safe spaces that can become scenarios for this type of violence. In these cases, identification and intervention by adults are essential. Below, we’ll tell you everything you need to know about it.

What is peer-to-peer sexual abuse?

Sexual abuse among peers is that which takes place between two minors. Therefore, it includes those actions that a child or a young person performs to the detriment of the freedom or sexual indemnity of another. However, it’s important to take into account certain aspects:

  • The age difference between the two must be considerable. For example, that which occurs between a 16-year-old and a nine-year-old.
  • If the ages are similar, asymmetry occurs for other reasons. There may be significant differences in anatomy, psychological, or emotional maturity, or previous sexual experience. In any case, the imbalance is obvious and one of the minors holds a position of power.

In addition, it’s important to consider that the intention of the sexual abuse is different from that of childish exploratory play. It’s common that at a certain point in their development, children may show their genitals to others, observe those of the opposite sex, or even touch them. But all this happens in a balanced relationship and with an eagerness to discover, without there being an erotic or fully sexual component. On the contrary, in peer sexual abuse, excitement and imbalance do appear.

A teen girl crying into her hands.
On many occasions, children may not be aware of the seriousness of what is happening to them or may not decide to tell about it out of fear or shame.

What are the behaviors to take into account?

In view of the above, we should ask ourselves how to differentiate between when it’s a natural behavior and when we’re looking at a warning sign. And the reality is that peer-to-peer sexual abuse isn’t always as visible as we think it is.

Of course, this situation includes any type of physical contact of a sexual nature that’s performed without consent. It should be kept in mind that, because of the inequality, the other minor doesn’t have the capacity to consent. However, it also covers less obvious or more normalized behaviors. For example, inappropriate touching, the exhibition of one’s own body in front of the other minor, or explicit verbal propositions.

Why does it happen?

When sexual abuse is perpetrated by an adult, it’s clear that the responsibility lies entirely with the adult. However, peer-to-peer sexual abuse isn’t such a simple situation. It’s important to take into account some factors that can lead to its occurrence. Among them, we can highlight the following:

  • Lack of sex education. Many young people don’t have sufficient and accurate information about sexuality. Therefore, their knowledge may come from harmful sources, such as pornography, and not from the main socializing agents, such as the school or the family.
  • The presence of psychological problems. When this condition is present in the child, it can also play an important role, as well as their family history and previous experiences. For example, growing up in a dysfunctional family or having suffered abuse in the flesh can lead to perpetuating that abuse with a peer.
  • Social and cultural aspects. For example, the prevailing machismo in society can contribute to this type of abuse. In addition, family or religious beliefs that repress and demonize sexuality may lead children to express their impulses in inappropriate and harmful ways.
If adults observe a situation of peer abuse, adults should intervene and provide help to the children involved.

Intervene and help both children

Dealing with peer-to-peer sexual abuse is more complex than when it occurs between an adult and a child. It’s not easy to determine the degree of knowledge that the child has of their actions and the possible consequences and damage resulting from their behavior.

Of course, it’s essential to intervene, to save the victim, and to help the aggressor to become aware of their responsibility. However, it’s not a matter of stigmatizing or isolating the child. Just as the victim needs emotional and psychological support, so does the abuser. In this case, it’s essential to address any disruption or harmful family situation, as well as to provide quality sex education.

Ultimately, childhood is an extremely vulnerable stage in which these types of experiences can cause profound harm. Parents, teachers, and other adults who live regularly with children must be alert to the possible signs of abuse. Family and professional support will be essential to address the aftermath and preserve the emotional well-being of the children involved.

All cited sources were thoroughly reviewed by our team to ensure their quality, reliability, currency, and validity. The bibliography of this article was considered reliable and of academic or scientific accuracy.

  • Aguilar, M. M. (2009). Abuso sexual en la infancia. Anales de Derecho, No 27, pp. 232-233.
  • Acuña Navas, M. J. (2014). Abuso sexual en menores de edad: generalidades, consecuencias y prevención. Medicina Legal de Costa Rica31(1), 57-69.

This text is provided for informational purposes only and does not replace consultation with a professional. If in doubt, consult your specialist.