In its simplest form, child sexual abuse is a sexual encounter that occurs between a child and an older person (as children cannot legally consent to sexual acts). A child is sexually abused when they are forced or persuaded to take part in sexual activities. This abuse may involve physical contact but also includes non-contact cases, it can even occur indirectly, for example, online. Sometimes the child won’t understand that what’s happening to them is abuse. They may not even understand that it’s wrong.
In practice however, there are two working definitions of child sexual abuse. One definition of childhood sexual abuse is used by legal professionals, while the other is used by clinical professionals, like therapists.
In the realm of legal definitions, both civil (child protection) and criminal definitions exist for child sexual abuse. Federally, the definition of child sexual abuse is contained within the Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act; therein, sexual abuse is defined as:
- The employment, use, persuasion, inducement, enticement, or coercion of any child to engage in, or assist any other person to engage in, any sexually explicit conduct or simulation of such conduct for the purpose of producing a visual depiction of such conduct
- The rape, and in cases of caretaker or inter-familial relationships, statutory rape, molestation, prostitution, or other form of sexual exploitation of children, or incest with children
The age under which one is considered a child varies by state and sometimes an age differential between the perpetrator and the victim is required in order for the abuse to constitute a crime.
Clinicians, like psychiatrists and psychologists, judge childhood sexual abuse more on the effect it has on the child and less on a cut-and-dry definition. Traumatic impact is generally what clinicians look for in cases of sexual abuse.
A clinician often considers the following factors when differentiating abusive from non-abusive acts:
- Power differential – wherein the abuser has power over the abused. This power may be physical or psychological in nature.
- Knowledge differential – wherein the abuser has a more sophisticated understanding of the situation than the abused. This may be due to an age difference or cognitive/emotional differences.
- Gratification differential – wherein the abuser seeks gratification for themselves and not the abused.
Child sexual abuse generally involves some form of sexual contact or interaction with a minor for another’s gratification. Sexual abuse between children usually occurs when there is a significant age difference (usually 3 or more years) between the children, or if the children are very different developmentally or size-wise.
Physical contact sexual abuse can include:
- Fondling or direct physical contact of a sexual nature,
- Having a child touch someone else’s genitals or play sexual games
- Any sexual act between an adult and a minor, or between two minors when one exerts power over the other
Sexual abuse does not have to involve penetration, force, pain, or even touching. If an adult engages in any sexual behavior (looking, showing, or touching) with a child to meet the adult’s interest or sexual needs, it is sexual abuse. Indirect sexual acts can include:
- Acts of exhibitionism
- Acts of voyeurism
- Communicating in a sexual manner by phone or internet
- Involving a child in prostitution or sex trafficking
- Encouraging a child to watch or hear sexual acts
- Inappropriately watching a child undress or use the bathroom, or
- Exposing a child to pornography or involving a child to participate in pornography
Child pornography is a serious and growing problem with the Internet increasing access and providing the ability to download and share child pornography. To view sexually abusive images of a child is to participate in the abuse of that child.