Child sex abuse





As people became civilised they developed formal rules of behaviour in order to live successfully in a group.

In part, these rules involved efforts to curb, limit and define appropriate channels for sexual activity and standards for family behaviour.


So how is child sex abuse defined? Answer – quite simply their appears to be no universally accepted definition of what constitutes child sex abuse, but what we do have are many adhoc formulations and guidelines.

It is important to understand that the many variations of definitions that exist are significant because they may explain some of the differences in reported statistics on child abuse.

So let us look at some of the many definitions used in studying and measuring child abuse :



Sees sexual victimisation as ‘sexual encounters of children under the age of 13 with persons at least 5 years older than themselves, and encounters of a child 13-16 years old with persons at least 10 years older. Sexual encounter could be intercourse, anal/genital contact, fondling or an encounter with an exhibitionist.’



‘A child (under 16) is sexually abused when another person who is sexually mature, involves the child in any activity which the other person expects to lead to their sexual arousal.’



This definition ties together most stances from other definitions in an aim to cover all angles; ‘Any children below the age of consent may be deemed to have been sexually abused when a sexually mature person has, by design or by neglect of their usual societal or specific responsibilities in relation to the child, engaged or permitted the engagement of that child in any activity of a sexual nature which is intended to lead to the sexual gratification of the sexually mature person.’


What the last definition pertains is whether or not this activity involves explicit coercion by any means, whether or not it involves genital or physical contact, whether or not it was initiated by the child and whether or not there is discernible, harmful outcomes.

These are only 3 definitions that I have chosen from a much broader and numerous spectrum, but which demonstrate the great diversity when attempting to define child sex abuse.

Upon closer scrutiny of the different versions that aim to identify the key characteristics of child sex abuse, 2 fundamental points have to be addressed.


1.What is to be called sexual? It is not clear that every child will identify some acts as sexual, nor that all children will relate to them as exploitative or harmful. Obviously the intention of the abuser is a useful criterion for what is to be labeled sexual abuse, indeed a central element is ‘something carried out by the adult for their own sexual purposes, taking the child as an object in the action.

2. What is the age and developmental level of both the child and the abuser? Most definitions select a chronological age to define the limits of abuse, usually legally rather than psychologically designated. With reference to the definition put forward by FINKELHOR, both he and many others choose 5 years or more for sexual contact to be regarded as abusive – such guidelines can be viewed to be very imprecise. We must also take note that ALL cases of sex abuse involve the use of coercion in either an implicit or explicit way, and this is central in designating it as abusive.


We must we not lose sight of the fact that a child not resisting the advances of an adult are still regarded as abused because of the child’s lack of knowledge of social meanings and psychological effects of the sexual encounters. After all trusting in adults means that there would be no informed consent.


What this indicates is that there is some form of power relationship that exists between the child and the adult. . .

The issue of the power relationship that pertains between the abuser and victim is significant for the consideration of the nature of child sex abuse.

ALL forms of abuse have at their centre, the exploitation of a power differential, it may be explicit and obvious (through direct physical force) or subtle (playing on the dependency of the victim).

The existence of abuse therefore, is partially defined by the use of a position of power to manipulate another for ones own self-gratification and against the dictates of the well being of the other.


This direction has lead us to an important question that needs to be addressed, when in the context of examining definitions of child sex abuse:

Is there something distinct about child sex abuse that differentiates it from other instances in which power is exploited for sexual ends?

The answer is of course yes. In the case of sexual contact between a child and an adult there is no need to explore the relationship surrounding the two protagonists-children are structurally dependant on adults, afterall that is one factor that defines them as children in the first place.

It is a key element that sexual activity between a child and an adult always designates an exploitation of power, it can never be anything but abuse, and it is for this reason that it differs from other forms of sexual encounters.


In the past decade there has also been a dramatic rise in the number of children engaging other children in unwanted, uncomfortable or developmentally inappropriate sexual activity. This leads to a big problem. . .

Can we name the initiating child as the abuser?

Okay so far a number of definitions have been identified, and the diversity and problems that have arisen have been highlighted. However, designating abuse in theory is far easier than applying it in practice. Child sex abuse is no only a very controversial, delicate issue, it poses many grey areas and open-ended questions that cannot be answered.


1.The boundaries between appropriate affectionate and inappropriate sexual physical contact between adults and children may be difficult to draw.

2.It may not be clear whether an adult is deriving sexual gratification from an action with a child.

3.It may be even less clear whether a child is aware that anything untoward has taken place at all.

4.A widespread problem occurs in attaining clear information concerning the precise nature of the contact between a child and an adult. What good is the vast array of definitions if the cases cannot all be discovered.


What these grey areas lead us to ask is whether intervention is appropriate in all suspected circumstances, and if so to what degree?


The general answer to this question is ALWAYS. Child sex abuse that is experienced usually has serious consequences for a child, both in the long and short term.


So how useful are such definitions in practice?


What must first be acknowledged is that many instances of the child/adult encounter do fall within the definitions offered earlier.

In these instances such definitions are useful for naming the encounter as abusive, and in clarifying issues such as the severity of the incident.


However, the degree of coercion, genital contact, child activity or immediate outcome (all mentioned in the three definitions mentioned) are all irrelevant to the naming of an adult/child sexual encounter as abusive. The encounters have already been labeled as ‘abusive’ because children cannot give informed consent.


The definitions are not very useful in differentiating borderline cases, as mentioned earlier there exists a grey area between affectionate physical contact and sexual interference. Of course the perceptions of the child, relating to say feeling uncomfortable, may prove to be the deciphering line, but are children a reliable source of information – remember they lack social knowledge and experiences.


According to HAUGARD and REPPUCI (1988) the use of a general category of children who have been sexually abused might obscure important variations amongst children who have been abused in different ways, at different ages, by different people and under different circumstances. In other words labeling someone as being simply ‘sexually abused’ may hide other important features of the individual cases. All cases are different, but labeling them all the same hides the varying severity of the cases.

The label ‘child sex abuse’ should instead be used sparingly and only in that general sense, with detailed descriptions used whenever possible. Phrases more specific (i.e.: molested, intercourse) provide much more meaningful information than does ‘sexually abused’ victim.

So what are we left with? There are many definitions of child sex abuse that aim to identify the varying degrees of each case in terms of both its seriousness, severity and the potential harm that can be caused. There is an argument that we do not need to know these factors, any adult/child sexual encounter is abuse due to the child being able to give informed consent. However there is also a counter-argument which is based on the presumption that it is better to know the type of abuse (i.e. molesting, intercourse) rather than the vague, yet broad term of simply ‘child sex abuse.’ This is because each case varies in severity and thus possible long-term effects on the child.


One would conclude by saying that it is important to have a wide variety of definitions of child sex abuse because every case is different and what may relate to one definition in one case, may be missed by another definition. This in turn would result in a case of child sex abuse being overlooked. Having one universal definition would lead to many cases being overlooked in this way.


Not only do public and professional groups have differing definitions, but mental health, legal and social service professionals frequently differ among themselves. Differences also exist within these professional groups.

This lack of a shared definition has profound implications for our knowledge and understanding for the entire field of child sex abuse.


Definitional issues are critical in all areas of child maltreatment because operational definitions are used to determine when intervention into privacy of the family is permissible. At the core of this ethical and legal dilemma are the competing interests of protecting the constitutionally guaranteed right of family privacy while at the same time using the parents patriae power of the state to protect the child.


On one end of the continuum those favouring protection of family privacy argue for limiting state intervention to only the most extreme cases. They recommend definitions of abuse that are purposefully specific and narrow. They argue that current definitions of abuse are unconstitutionally vague, thereby permitting interventions based on subjective opinion.


At the other end of the continuum are those favouring protection of the child at all costs. These individuals recommend interventions based on suspicion of abuse, defined quite broadly, in order to prevent an escalation of the abuse to extreme forms.


Abusiveness should be determined by using such facts as:

1. The intention of the actor (discriminates between acts performed for the sexual stimulation  of the offender and acts performed simply to convey feelings of affection.

2. The acts effects upon the recipient.

3. An observers value Judgement about the act.

4. The source of the standard for that Judgement.


Acknowledging the difficulties in defining child sex abuse, FINKELHOR (1979) describes three standards that influence the development of his research definition. . .

1. The consent standard : an act is abusive if a child does not consent to it.

2. The report of the victim : this leads to problems. Children could later say that they felt victimised by the act, that they could not say no to an adult. There is also the issue of informed consent.

3. The community standard : He sees this one as the most critical because it is based on the age of both the victim and perpetrator as well as the relationship between the two and because legal definitions are based on this criteria.


However, which community should supply the standard is often the question.


A final difficulty in the definition of abusive acts is the use of varying terminology to convey a certain attitude about them.

Adams and Fay (1981) prefer the term sexual assault to convey its seriousness and harmfulness. Constantine recommends using sexual misuse or sexual exploitation to separate abusive from non-abusive sexual encounters between children and adults.


2 types of definitions :




Research definitions :


In general the term is used by researchers to cover a multitude of vaguely defined acts. Issue of contact abuse (all behaviours that involve intercourse, oral and anal sex, and fondling of breasts and genitals) with non-contact abuse (encounters with exhibitionists and solicitation) Many studies contain sexual abuse, which combines the two - leads to argument that non-contact abuse is less serious than contact abuse.


In theory prevalence rates increased when non-contact abuse numbers were added.


FINKELHOR 1979 & 1984

Used male and female college students and in his 1984 study used male and female parents of children aged 6-14. In both studies both contact and non-contact acts were included, from intercourse and genital fondling to hugging, kissing or fondling in a sexual way to sexual overtures.


WYATT 1985

Urban community samples composed entirely of women, the upper age limit was 17 and contact and non-contact abuse were separated for analysis. Wyatts definition of abuse used the consent standard. For incidents that took place when the victim was 12 or younger and that involved an older partner, experiences were considered abusive regardless of consent. For youth from 13-17 voluntary experiences with older partners were not considered sexual abuse.


In these two studies the prevalence rate differences that occurred appeared to be the result of definition alone. FINKELHOR used somewhat more restrictive definitions than did WYATT. Imposition of this more restrictive criteria on WYATT'S sample resulted in a 14% decrease in the number of women identified as abused.



Legal definitions :


Definitions of child sex abuse are, according to BULKLEY (1985), found in child sex offence, incest, and child protection statutes. A 4th type of statute dealing with domestic violence  may be invoked to protect children from intra-familial sexual abuse.


FINKELHOR - laws concerning sexual abuse can be considered reflections of community standards and therefore can provide useful guidelines for child sex abuse - seems to have some validity.


The criteria that most legal definitions depend on tend to be the ages of the child and the perpetrator, and the type of the act.


By examining the various definitions that have been used by researchers to determine estimates of prevalence, by the legal system to determine when to intervene either to protect the child or to prosecute the perpetrator, and by professional helpers and the public to decide whether and what kind of intervention is necessary, I have tried to demonstrate just how important shared definitions are.


The task of communicating about an issue is infinitely more difficult when the same term does not convey identical meaning because the implications can be so different.


Child sex abuse is just a term. If different professional groups do not have consensual definitions, they should become aware of their differences in order to co-ordinate their efforts and increase the probability of outcomes that are in  the public interest.


The use of a broad an encompassing definition of child sexual abuse dramatically increases the number of children who can be characterised as having been abused.


However, now that we have been alerted and want to study the phenomenon closely, too broad a definition may be an impediment. The broad definition yields such a heterogeneous group that an investigation of it is often meaningless   


Keeping in mind how both our cultural values and our mores affect our definitions of child sex abuse, we can understand why clear definitions are critical to developing a reasonable research, clinical, legal and social agenda for the future.

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