Sexual abuse is a topic which has become highly controversial since the mid 1970s, especially "child sexual abuse".
The term "sexual abuse" has become a buzzword, though the meaning is vague and only loosely defined. The term is bandied about indiscriminately in the media; combining the terms "child" with "sexual" and "abuse" in media reporting is guaranteed to increase readership or viewership, which leads to higher advertising revenue for the media companies concerned, and to greater profits.
"Sexual abuse" (however it is defined) does exist. Men, women, children, babies, dogs, cats, horses, sheep, goats, etc. can all be "sexually abused". But is all sexual activity to be considered abusive when it involves certain other people, or animals? How does one distinguish between "abuse" and "non-abuse" -- between activity which is unwanted, and that which may be desired by the participants? How does one know when there is consent or when there is coercion? And, since coercion exists on a spectrum -- from mild persuasion to the use of physical force -- where should the line be drawn? When does sexual activity change from being willing to being unwilling?
Do people have the right to decide what is done to their bodies -- things performed either by themselves or by others -- or does the government have the right to forbid people from performing certain activities? And who, then, decides when a person is "incapacitated" and cannot exercise free choice?
And what is meant by the term "sexual activity". This is also vaguely defined. Is a pat on the buttocks of a child "sexual abuse"?
Currently, the trend is to define something as "sexual" not by the physical activity itself (a doctor can legally penetrate the anus of a young child with his finger during an examination, and this is not considered to be "sexual" or to be "sexual abuse") but rather by the "state of mind" of the person who is performing the action.
If a person finds an activity sexually stimulating or exciting, then that person can be charged with "sexual abuse" if the activity involves a protected class of individuals (usually people under a certain age, or animals -- depending on the jurisdiction) whether the activity is wanted or unwanted by the person being acted upon.
If the clerk in a shoe store, while fitting a woman with new shoes, finds himself sexually excited by doing so, then is he "sexually abusing" the woman customer?
These questions (and others) are very difficult to answer. The law has been becoming increasingly punitive with regards to activities which can be considered "sexual" or "abusive". Prisons today are crowded with men who have been convicted of "sexually abusing" others, even when no physical contact was involved, or their partner was completely willing. For example, a man who leaves the shower without a towel around his body can be arrested and convicted of "child sexual abuse" in many jurisdictions if his children view his naked body.
A survey conducted by the British National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children found that, for a hypothetical scenario involving a 15-year-old boy and a 23-year-old woman, current legal definitions of sexual abuse were rejected by 88% of minor respondents. Dave Riegel reports that, in a study of an Internet sample presented with a series of hypothetical scenarios involving males of varying ages, perception of sexual abuse among respondents shows a modest but significant negative correlation with perception of consent, suggesting that popular perception of sexual abuse may be inconsistent with certain legal and scientific definitions that do not take consent into account.
Schools 'not advising on abuse'. BBC News. 4 June 2006. http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_news/5047120.stm