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Myth 8: Child sexual abuse is a recognizable syndrome that can be diagnosed by the presence of certain symptoms.


Child sexual abuse is not a syndrome or illness, but rather an event. Furthermore, it is defined by the law, not by psychological science. As a result, a wide variety of incidents are defined as sexual abuse, and they may bear little resemblance to each other.

Thus, different children and adolescents found to be sexually abused may have experienced very different events:29

Children identified as sexually abused are similar to each other only in that they have been exposed to sexual behavior deemed to be inappropriate, socially unacceptable, or harmful.31

As a result, there is no set of reactions that is a single inevitable outcome of what is called child sexual abuse. There is no particular identifying syndrome or set of symptoms, such as multiple personality disorder or borderline personality disorder.32

• For more information about the definition of child sexual abuse, see the section on this site about terminology.

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25. Haugaard, 2000.

26. West, 1998.

27. American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, 1999*; Center for Sex Offender Management, 1999*.

28. Fergusson & Mullen, 1999.

29. American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, 1999*; Haugaard, 2000; West, 1998.

30. Li, 1990a.

31. Fergusson & Mullen, 1999.

32. Beitchman et al., 1992; Constantine, 1981; Fergusson & Mullen, 1999; Ingram, 1981; Kilpatrick, 1987; West & Woodhouse, 1990.

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