Child sexual abuse

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Child sexual abuse is a loaded term which today lacks any clear meaning, as the term is so broadly defined that it may include any form of sexual (or even non-sexual) activity involving a person of any age (even including a child as the "perpetrator") with another person under the age of 18.

The word "child" is not clearly defined, and could refer to the medical definition of "child" -- a human who has not yet reached puberty, or a person under the legal age of consent, or a person under the age of 18 or 21 (depending on the legal jurisdiction). Therefore, the question of whether a young person is or is not a "child" is not clearly addressed in the term "child sexual abuse".

The word "sexual" is also problematic. What kind of activity is determined to be "sexual," as opposed to simply "sensual," and what physical activities are non-sexual? Should an activity be referred to as "sexual" only when it involves the genitals? Or does the determination of "sexual" depend on the state of mind of the person, for example: If a person finds it sexually exciting to touch a woman's feet, would a clerk in a shoe store so inclined be engaging in "sexual activity" with an (unwitting) woman customer when he helps her try on a new pair of shoes?

The word "abuse" is also a problem. When does "use" cross over the line to "abuse? If "child sexual abuse exists, this implies that "child sexual use" also exist. What determines whether a person is "using" another person, as opposed to being involved in a relationship which provides benefits for both parties, not just one or the other?

Most people assume that the term "child sexual abuse" refers to non-consensual or coerced sexual activity with children. But "child sexual abuse" may not be clearly distinguished from rape, as any sexual activity involving a "child" may, by legal definition, be "statutory rape".

"Child sexual abuse" may (or may not) involve psychological manipulation of the "child" by another, or other forms of subtle coercion ranging from emotional blackmail to bribes, and may (or may not) involve a willing child.

"Rape" of a person is generally considered to be an act involving violence (or the threat of violence) and to be a non-consensual act of forcible sex. But in the case of a "child" under the legal age of consent, "statutory rape" involves an often willing child, one who is simply presumed under the law to be unable to give valid consent.

The history of the term "child sexual abuse"

Until fairly recently in human history (until the late 17th or early 18th century) "child sexual abuse," as a concept, did not exist. Children older than about 8 or 10 years old were considered to be "little adults," and were endowed with the right to engage in whatever activities they wished with others (including sexual activities) irrespective of the age of the other partner. Children were considered to have agency -- they were presumed to have the right to independently make decisions as to the activities they engaged in.

The rape of children did exist, as did the rape of women, but these were addressed similarly under the law as being violent assaults, and were legally punished.

A legal term synonymous with "child sexual abuse" is child molestation. "Child molestation" may involve strangers or casual acquaintenances, but more typically it occurs within the immediate family household. The term is also commonly confounded with the terms physical abuse and emotional abuse.

Current Usage

Currently, the term "child sexual abuse" is usually applied to any sexual activity which a child engages in with any other person, though sexologists distinguish a normal child's "sex play" involving other children from "child sexual abuse", though this distinction is becoming more blurred as children are now often considered to be "sexual predators" who abuse other children sexually.

With the movement beginning in the late 1970s, spearheaded by victim's rights groups and certain feminist organization, the blurring of the lines between (for example) violent rape and other behaviors such as "date rape," "statutory rape," and even mere "day-after regrets," many people use the terms "child sexual abuse," "child molestation" and "rape" interchangeably. Proponents of this confounding of terms claim that this lack of distinction helps the public to understand that (supposedly) unwanted sexual acts of all types for what the proponents (wrongly) claim they are -- coerced sexual activity. Their goal is to avoid minimizing the seriousness of certain acts, but the unintended consequences are to give the impression that all sexual activity of these types involve overt coercion or physical violence.

Given the current assumption that no child is capable of consenting to sexual activity, any sexual activity engaged in by a child is usually considered by the lay person to be child sexual abuse, regardless of whether the child consented or not, or even when the child was the one who instigated the activity.

As such, the term is currently used to apply to any interaction with a child that has, or can be interpreted by others to have any sexual implications.

Susan Clancy has stated the following in an interview on the progressive news site

"'In the 1950s and 1960s, psychiatrists were very open and honest about sexual abuse, but there was also that tendency to think it was the child's fault. Feminists were naturally infuriated, because it's not the children's fault! But the way they got attention to it was to portray the sexual abuse in a way that would shock people. They did that by comparing it to a rape. Before that, the reaction from the medical and psych communities was, 'This is not something we really care about.' It wasn't until feminists and child-protection advocates misportrayed it that we were able to arouse massive medical and scientific attention to the topic.'

Real Child Sexual Abuse

The fact that currently the term is used to cover situations which may not take into account the needs and desires of the child should not mean that genuine acts of child sexual abuse should be discounted, as in when the sexual activity is non-consensual, or involves strong coercion.

Those exposed to the term "child sexual abuse" in the media or on the Internet should keep in mind that the so-called "abuse" may not have been an act involving any real harms, and that the current prohibitions regarding children engaging in sexual activity may ignore the wishes, needs, and desires of the child

Unfortunately, the lack of precision in current usage often means that children who may have willingly consented to mutually desired sexual activity may be regarded as victims of genuine child abuse, and in many cases, may after-the-fact be led to "reconceptualize" the sexual activity as having been harmful.

The treatment of consensual activities as being identical to non-consensual activities leads to many of the same consequences as do genuine non-consensual activities, and the real harms to the child then are iatrogenic in origin.

The adults involved in such relationships also may be unjustly treated as if they were violent rapists.

Psychological support and treatment

Any person who has been involved in non-consensual or coercive sexual activity may (or may not) need professional counseling to mitigate any potentially serious psychological after-effects from their experiences, though a large percentage of young people demonstrate no serious harms from sexual activities which they have engaged in, even when forced or coerced. Only a small minority actually require therapeutic intervention. It is important that children who need assistance receive the help they need, and it is also important that the perpetrators of violent or strongly coercive acts be identified in order to prevent them from harming other children.

Biased Terminology

An article appeared in The Journal of Sex Research Vol. 30, No.3, pp. 260-269 August 1993 describing the use of biased terminology, which seriously distorts how people think about child abuse and child sexual experiences with adults.

The article is titled: "Biased Terminology Effects and Biased Information Processing in Research on Adult-Nonadult Sexual Interactions: An Empirical Investigation, and is authored by Bruce Rind and Robert Bauserman.

Here is the abstract of the article:


Adult-child and adult-adolescent sexual interactions have generally been described in the professional literature with value-laden negative terms. Recently, a number of researchers have criticized this state of affairs, claiming that such usage is likely to have biasing effects.

The current investigation examined empirically the biasing impact of negative terminology.

Eighty undergraduate students read a shortened journal article that used either neutral or negative terms to describe a number of cases of sexual relationships between male adolescents and male adults - the shortened article was adapted from Tindall (1978). Additionally, students were exposed either to descriptive information or descriptive plus long-term nonnegative outcome information. The purpose of this manipulation was to examine whether students would process the neutral and positive data in a biased fashion, because these data contradict strongly held assumptions of harm as a consequence of these contacts. Students' judgments were negatively biased by the negative terminology. The students also exhibited evidence for biased processing of the nonnegative outcome information.

Please see below for a link to the on-line article.

See also

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