Defining Child Sexual Abuse

by Sheri_Oz

The line between sexually abusive behaviors and non-abusive behaviors is not always clear-cut. Learn to tell the difference.

Any form of sexual behaviour between a child and an adult is abusive because its purpose is to gratify the adult's needs, whether these are sexual needs or the need for control and power, or the need for warmth and affection.

Children cannot consent to sexual behavior because they do not understand the consequences of sexual relations nor do they understand the nature of sexual urges. Therefore, even if a child is persuaded to give consent this is still abuse.

In spite of the fact that this should be clear, there are some subtle forms of abuse that may escape detection. This gray area also confuses the child more than more blatant forms of abuse. Let us look at the different ways in which sexual abuse is perpetrated to understand the nature of abuse and its impact on the victim/survivor.

Child Sexual Abuse is NOT Sex!

It is assault.  It is a crime.

It is victimization, violation of a child and a form of violence (even if it is not physically violent).

First We Must Distinguish Between Contact and Non-Contact Abuse

Types of Behaviors That Constitute Contact Abuse

Sexual abuse is usually thought of as involving an adult touching a child's genitals or getting the child to touch the adult's genitals.However, this clear physical form of abuse is not the only way by which an adult or older minor sexually abuses a child.

If someone does not touch a child but involves him or her in an activity that includes being touched by others, such as making the child participate in pornographic films or prostitution, then that person is an abuser.

Even stroking a neutral part of the child's body (such as an arm or head) can be considered abuse if there is a sexual feeling behind the touch. Penetration is not necessary for an act to be labelled "sexual abuse". This needs to be further explained:

Children notice the difference between normal touch and sexual touch and it confuses them because they do not understand what is happening. Girls may describe feeling funny feelings in their belly and boys may talk about strange vibrations in the legs. Their limited life experience has not given them the tools for labelling these sensations as sexual. Therefore, the manipulative person can easily overcome their reticense and convince them to ignore their discomfort. Sexual looks and suggestive words directed at a child affect them in the same way.

If we want to understand how this can happen, think about how adults can tell by a handshake or a look in the eye if someone desires him or her sexually. The difference is that the adult understands the sensations that accompany the sexual attraction and can decide how to deal with it. Children cannot.

Types of Non-Contact Abuse Behaviors

Very young children need help with dressing, bathing and using the toilet. However, when children are old enough to manage these activities on their own, they should be afforded the privacy that shows respect for their growing autonomy. Not allowing children this privacy, especially when they ask for it, is a form of abuse. For example, the pubescent girl who wants to close the door when she takes care of her personal hygiene is being abused when her father tells her that their family has no secrets and therefore she is forbidden to close the door.

Similarly, parents who do not have clear boundaries and leave doors open purposefully when they use the toilet, bathe, dress, or have sex are behaving in an abusive fashion. This is very subtle and this form of abuse is not reportable to the authorities (because it is so ambiguous). It can be confusing to children and have a slightly negative effect on their sexual development at least, but it can also overwhelm the child with sexual stimuli to an extent that may be very damaging.

Showing a child pornography, inviting the child to sit with the adult while watching pornographic movies is another form of sexual abuse. This is reportable.

Taking pornographic pictures of the child is also a reportable offense. However, we must make the distinction between pornographic photographs and the naive bath-time photographs many parents take of their children. We sometimes over-react.

I Said No! A kid-to-kid guide to keeping your private parts private

Very child-friendly, informative and nonthreatening way to help children learn to define their own boundaries. My daughters liked having me read this kind of book to them as it made them feel empowered.

View on Amazon

Some Sexual Abuse is Very Subtle

This includes abuse carried out under the guise of normal caring: bathing the child or applying creams while simultaneously engaging in some form of sexual behavior, giving excessive and unnecessary enemas and examinations of the child's private parts when there is no medical reason to do so. Even brushing the child's hair can be abusive if the adult has sexual feelings toward the child and does not block these feelings.

These forms of abuse are more often carried out by mothers. A child can be so used to being very intimately washed each night, from an early age, that, even if it makes them feel awkward at the time, they do not realise it is abuse until they are older. These subtle types of abuse may be equally as damaging to the child as penetrative abuse.

When Tickling Is a Problem

And a Way to Use Tickling as a Learning Tool for Preventing Sexual Abuse

Sometimes adults and children play games of hide-and-seek, tickling, brushing each others' hair, etc. These games are normal and fun as long as the child is allowed to say, "That's enough. I don't want to do this anymore." When the child is being tickled and says "stop" and the adult continues, the child's boundaries are not being respected.

I am not saying that this is sexual abuse. I am saying that this is problematic because it shows the child that he or she cannot expect any control over his or her own body.

Even after requesting that the tickling stop, the child may still laugh, but only because that is a natural physical reaction to being tickled. It does not necessarily mean the child is still enjoying it.

It is important to stop as soon as the child says to - even if after you stop, the child then says "more!" This teaches children that they can set their own boundaries and that even an adult is supposed to respect that.

Children Sexually Abused by Other Children

Today it is recognized that even very young children can sexually abuse other children. We see this in the school yard, in the neighbourhood and in the home.

The differences between normal childhood sexual play and abusive behaviour among children are not always clear. Normal childhood play can involve sexual elements but this is not abuse if both children are equal in power and both consent.

If, however, the play goes beyond normal developmental bounds, indicating a power difference, then the child initiating the sexual behaviors may need professional attention. It may indicate that the abusing child is, himself or herself, being abused by someone else, or is exposed to sexually explicit material, such as pornography.

It is important to know how to distinguish sexually abusive behaviours from normal behaviours so that children who are in abusive situations can be helped.

For Further Information on this Topic

Can We Keep Children Safe From Abuse?
Learn different approaches to the prevention of child sexual abuse.

Updated: 10/04/2012, Sheri_Oz
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Sheri_Oz on 09/30/2012

@Ragimelil: Thanks. Glad you found it useful.

Ragtimelil on 09/29/2012

Excellent definition of abuse. Thanks for writing this!

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